Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident

Geoff Andrews
22 October 2008

The phenomenon of the Italian mafia has been depicted by many writers and filmmakers. Roberto Saviano's book Gomorrah - a gripping, unsentimental expose of the mafia in the southern city of Napoli, first published in May 2006 - is one of the very best. Its literary success, and the great acclaim which the film based on it has received, is also a measure of the Italian public's serious concern about the corrosion of much of the country's public life in bleak political times.

Also in openDemocracy on new mafia networks:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (25 October 2005)

Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria: the mafia's dance to Europe" (16 August 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

Li Datong, "The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope" (13 September 2008)

Gomorrah is groundbreaking in five respects:

* it is written by someone brought up in the Casal di Principe neighbourhood of the Casalesi, one of the most violent of the clans making up the Camorra - the mafia in this region of Italy

* it is uncompromising in its denunciation of the Camorra's brutality

* it makes clear the global reach of the Camorra, an organisation with business interests now extend across many industries and several continents

* it provides a cutting, critical insight into deep-rooted problems in Naples (Napoli) and the inability of the Italian state to address them

* it is the most significant  of a growing number of examples in modern Italy of an artist leading the way in challenging power and exposing corruption - by an author still under 30, now facing threats to his life and under twenty-four-hour police protection.

Roberto Saviano's book fuses the genres of documentary, autobiography and investigative journalism to provide true insight into the nature of a modern business-criminal network. In this it moves decisively beyond the often shallow and anachronistic (even comforting) "Cosa Nostra" portraits of the mafia that still feature prominently in sections of the media. Saviano's research into the Camorra's dense inner culture reveals the vast and increasing reach of an agency that accumulates annual revenues of £130 billion.

The faces of this modern mafia are graphically revealed: its "post-Fordist" horizontal authority-structure, its presence in the new global markets in China and eastern Europe, the involvement of women as active participants in some of its business interests rather than just passive victims of their husband's crimes. There is imagination as well close-hand knowledge here: Saviano understands that teenagers who join the organisation as the only realistic route of escape from a menial, low-income life see the flamboyant tycoon Flavio Briatore (and not gangsters of the Al Capone type) as the image of success to aspire to.

The hard realities

In recalling his early life in Casal di Principe, Roberto Saviano argues that the activities and interests of the Casalesi are imprinted on the daily lives of the community. As a small child, he had to witness his father receive a severe beating for helping a dying victim of the clans. Saviano captures particularly well the fears and limited career "choices" of his teenage contemporaries, who become inducted to a life of crime only to find that it often proves to be "nasty, brutish and short".

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University.

He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press/McGill-Queen's, 2008).

Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

On so many levels, the Camorra is impossible to escape. Saviano's careful dissection of the language and culture of the clans - both the "system" (as Camorristi call their organisation) and the "directory" (its organising group of bosses and businessmen) -  makes him a penetrating and, to the Camorra, dangerous anatomist.

The local feuds, responsible for most of the violence on the streets of the Naples hinterlands, are described in raw, terrifying detail and offer a very different impression of mafia methods than dominant, much-recycled stereotypes. The links between the Camorra's global reach and urban power are also conveyed: a network that has massive interests in drugs, arms-dealing, designer clothing, the building industry and toxic waste can also ensure that the long-running refuse-landfill crisis in Naples which came to a head in spring 2008 cannot be solved by the Italian state.  

Matteo Garrone's award-winning film adaptation of Gomorrah was made on location in the housing-complexes and narrow alleys of the Camorra heartlands. Garrone's film also avoids the romanticised Godfather depiction of the Sicilian mafia (see "Sicily's other story", 31 May 2006). Its closeness to reality can be gauged by the revelation that three of the non-professional actors in the film (of whom two played clan bosses and one a hitman) had been arrested on extortion and drugs charges. The murder of six Africans by the Casalesi clan in the very area shown in the film - which caused the army to be deployed there - further emphasises the hard realities of life there.

The dissident voice

In his opposition to the power of organised crime, Roberto Saviano joins other artists, writers and intellectuals who have spoken out where others - even though better placed - have lacked the same courage and conviction. In recent times, however, the film director Nanni Moretti, the blogger Beppe Grillo and the comedian Sabina Guzzanti have all used the power of their art to make political interventions on several topics that much of the media ignores: Silvio Berlusconi's conflicts of interests, the Vatican's hypocrisies, and the criminality at the heart of Italy's political class.

Saviano's deepest affinity, however, may be with the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in the 1970s also spoke fearlessly against the dark forces at work in Italy's "system" of power - which many believe cost him his life (see "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini", 1 November 2005). 

Saviano describes an inspirational visit to Pasolini's tomb and draws parallels with Italy's greatest dissident when describing his own predicament:

"The possibility of writing about the mechanisms of power, beyond the stories and details. To reflect on whether it is still possible to name names, one by one, to point out the faces, strip the bodies of their crimes, and reveal them as elements of the architecture of authority. To reflect on whether it is still possible to snuff out, like truffle pigs, the dynamics of the real, the affirmation of power, without metaphors, without mediation, with nothing but the cutting edge of the word." 

Roberto Saviano has said that he will have to leave Italy as he feels that he is no longer safe in his own country and will never be able to lead a normal life. Italians - including its decrepit and defeated politicians - owe him a huge debt, as do all those fighting the mafia.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData